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On disaster, in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina

9/11 remembered (Photo by James Sullivan, posted at The September 11 Digital Archive at

Editor’s note: We are re-running this article, which we originally published in September of 2011, to commemorate 9/11.

“We thought the U.S. had been attacked. No one knew it was planes flying into buildings that caused the explosions. It sounded like bombs.

“We looked out the window of the restaurant, and saw pieces of concrete and glass falling. Then people falling. They had jumped from the windows.

“I walked out of the hotel minutes later, just in time to hear and feel the explosion when the plane hit the second tower. It caused a fireball that swept through the narrow street above our heads like a tornado. People started screaming and bolted. Women were running out of their high-heel shoes.

“My group later walked away from the financial district, heading uptown. We stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was open, and went in and prayed. There were a lot of people there doing that.

“Then we kept walking, all the way to Central Park. We just wanted to get as far away as we could.

“Even today, when I hear a flyover from my office on Poydras Street, I get an adrenaline rush.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my husband, Stewart, was at a breakfast meeting on the second floor of the Millenium Hilton Hotel, across the street from the World Trade Center’s twin towers. He had a table by the window. The memories above are his.

Not a day that he – or anyone else in this country – will easily forget.

A bare four years later, on the evening of Aug. 29, 2005, Stewart sat in a conference room at the Quality Inn Motel in Baton Rouge, and watched a small TV rigged with a tin-foil antenna capture the flooding and destruction of New Orleans.

Not a day that he – or anyone else in this country – will easily forget.

In the six years since, various people have tried to compare the two national disasters – most infamously then-New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who dismissed Ground Zero in New York City as “a hole in the ground.” It was a comment that deservedly earned him scorn.

I don’t find that there’s much point in playing one-upmanship in the disaster game; 9/11 and Katrina were both cataclysmic events that changed the national psyche. And not for the better.

Fire or water, concentrated kill zone or spreading graveyard, each taught us painful lessons about our vulnerability in this ever-more-complicated world.

Yesterday, like you, I listened to a grave recitation of the names of those killed in the country’s most devastating terrorist attack. Like you, I heard the mournful notes of “Taps” rising from my TV screen. Like you, I feared another incident on this painful 10-year anniversary. Especially since a friend was flying home from New York on Sunday afternoon.

“What can you do?” she had asked. “I have to get back to New Orleans, and that’s the day I need to fly.”

She’s right: What can you do?

The Peck house after the tornado: ‘You know you’re in trouble when you’re the lead story on the evening news,’ said Stewart.

Six months after Katrina, a freak tornado bounced across New Orleans, landed in Lakeview and ripped a brick wall and three columns off our almost-completed house, which we had been rebuilding after Katrina. Stewart was the lead interview on the WWL 5 o’clock news.

“What can you do?” he said.

Whether calamity arrives courtesy of man or Mother Nature, you have to pick yourself up and keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be in New York City, visiting a daughter there, when Hurricane Irene took aim at the East Coast. I listened with some amusement to people in non-hurricane land planning for the storm.

“I’m ready,” one woman told a news reporter. “I’ve been cooking and I’ve filled the refrigerator with good things to eat.” “Be sure your freezer door is tightly shut,” advised another on-air personality.

I could have told both of them something about the appeal of food left in a dead refrigerator or a powerless freezer.

When my daughter calmly filled the bathtub with water, her New York roommates announced they had no interest in drinking it. Well, she told them dryly, if you want to flush the toilets, you’d do well not to pull the plug.

Storm-prep novices they may have been, but New Yorkers proved as resilient in the face of a hurricane as they were post 9/11. They braced for whatever was coming with resolve, fortitude and, in many cases, humor.

Just as we did post-Katrina.

I’d love to live in a world where no one has ever heard of FEMA, and orange is not an alert level but something grown in Florida. A world where scanners scan paper and not travelers, and a levee is just a good place to walk a dog or have a picnic.

Meanwhile, like Americans anywhere, I will face whatever comes with resolve, fortitude and, when I can, humor.

Click here to view The September 11 Digital Archive.


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